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His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s Teachings on The Heart Sutra
Bloomington, Indiana, May 11 – 13, 2010
The Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (TMBCC) hosted His Holiness’s teachings in the lovely, storied campus of Bloomington, Indiana. Bodhisattva Trading Company had the opportunity to exhibit our authentic antique singing bowls, along with about 30 mostly Tibetan vendors, and were to set up in a 120’ x 60’ tent adjacent to the Indiana University Auditorium where the teachings were being held. We were wary of Indiana’s propensity for rain, having been soaked at a similar event three years ago. For good reason! As I went to the Budget counter to rent our van, footage of tornadoes ravaging Kentucky played on the monitors. Paling, I asked, “Those aren’t around here, right?” to the rental agent. “Well, not yet,” he replied. “But this is Indiana. It’s pretty cold right now and there’s a warm front is coming in. So anything can happen.” Great… we’re setting up in a tent in tornado alley!
The sky darkened, although sunset was not til after 9 PM. Rain (my business partner) and I reminisced about the teachings in Coral Gables, Florida, in November of 1999, when we watched anxiously as Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc up the Florida coast just two days before His Holiness’ teachings were scheduled to begin there at the University of Florida. The Hurricane roughed up Coral Gables, took off up the East Coast as thousands streamed into Ft. Lauderdale from all over the country for the teachings. Under balmy breezes and sunny skies, His Holiness settled in to talk on the finer points of Atisha’a Lamp and Emptiness, answered the same questions everyone has been asking him for decades with grace and humor, gave a public talk in Ft. Lauderdale, and left. Meanwhile, Hurricane Andrew had taken a u-turn over the Carolinas, went south and blasted back into Coral Gables the night of the day we all went home. Synchronicity? We believed not. What might he be able to do for us now, we wondered.
Bleary, I climbed out of bed and found my way to the hotel lobby. There, contentedly planted in a rocking chair, a rosy faced Western nun and I exchanged greetings. Her name meant “Bliss of the Dharma”, but I called her Anni Chu for short. She was an ex-pat American from Texas, who had moved to Sweden 20 years ago to become a Buddhist nun. I asked if his Holiness had arrived in Bloomington yet. “He arrives at TMBCC around 3 today,” she answered brightly. Ah, yes. We had been invited!
His Holiness’ schedule was not announced to the vendors or the public at large. His arrival at the Center was merely the last stop on his schedule, and he would retire to his private quarters at the Center shortly after. The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center is the spiritual hub for the largest community of ethnic Mongolians in the world outside of Mongolia. It had been 3 years since His Holiness had been there to visit his elder brother and cultural center founder Thubten J. Norbu. Unfortunately, his brother succumbed to illness and left his body in September 2008. Due to his own illness and schedule constraints, His Holiness had been unable to come. So his arrival was a welcome and emotional moment for the Sangha.
By early afternoon, we had staked out our space in the tent and proceeded to try to strategize how to put the booth together without the coming weather ruining our thangka paintings. By 1:50, we had almost nothing done, but had ordered pipe and drape and loaded in our tubs, and took off for lunch in town, and then on to TMBCC.
Driving up the rural roads to the Center, Tibetan flags fluttered in the distance and a cloud of incense billowed up from a burner beneath TMBCC’s brightly painted entrance gate adorned with prayer flags. Beneath the gate was an exquisitely painted mandala, drawn in chalk by the monks. When we arrived, the press was poised at the gate, and Tibetan dancers in traditional costumes and musicians with drums and large Tibetan cymbals called Rolmo milled around, waiting for His Holiness to arrive. Secret service and police patrolled and the Sherriff’s department scrutinized all who entered.
The dancers were teenage Tibetan girls in traditional Hunters masks, heavy constructions fringed with huge white manes of fur. “I’ve got a fur ball,” one of them complained.
Women in their traditional silk dresses called “Chubas” stood by, some with vividly colored aprons, signifying their status as married. As the time for His Holiness’ arrival neared, they unfurled long, white silk scarves, called “khatas”, to offer to His Holiness, clasping them between their hands folded in prayer position. In the tradition, His Holiness accepts the scarf, and then puts it over the head of the person who offered it. Usually, he can’t take the time to do more than a few, but all are hopeful.
A second cluster of people had staked their positions out by the large prayer wheel in a shrine down the hill. The winds picked up. In the distance, sirens, wailing in the distance, seemed to approach. “Here he comes”, I said. The dancers took positions. Finally, following a squad car, a black sedan edged slowly through the gate. The musicians struck up and the dancers began dancing backward, waving their arms in oversize sleeves, yipping feisty Shamanic cries.
These girls began dancing backward down the road in front of the car, without being able to see where they were going, in huge, oversize masks. It couldn’t have been easy. As the car passed me, I felt a palpable blast of energy, enlivening and peaceful at the same time. All pranamed to His Holiness, as the car came to a rest at the prayer wheel shrine.
He got out of the car to applause, and greeted people while secret service moved him through the crowd, as he took a sacred circle around the shrine. Only two or three minutes later, he was whisked away back into the car, and headed down the hill for his last stop of the day at the Center. By now the girls had removed their masks, and hung the offered khatas on special handles mounted on the shrine. One stood with tears streaming down her face. Dancing for His Holiness is an honor of a lifetime.
We returned to the tent and set up before our 7 PM deadline. Back-breaking work isn’t so bad when you get to see the Dalai Lama on your lunch break!
Day 2 began with foreboding red dawn skies and a mob of raucous Starlings shrieking from the trees outside the hotel. As predicted, the rains came down hard, pounding against the tent all morning, providing an effective deterrent to customers. The rain on the tent did remind me of the monsoons in Maharashtra, India, during a meditation intensive I attended at the Syda Foundation in Ganeshpuri. We were in a similarly large, white tent at the top of a hill outside the Ashram, all dressed in our Shaivite whites, and practicing Mauna – in which we refrained from all speech except for the mantra. All that could be heard, almost the entire day except for the teachings, was the drone of hundreds of voices repeating the mantra – and, rain pounding on our tent like fingers on a drum.
By mid-afternoon, the sun came out, and attendees of the teachings started to find their way up the hill and through the aisles. Local and University TV crews were fascinated with the bowls, and our singing bowls made the news on Indianapolis’s Channel 13 that night. We worked from 7 AM to 10 PM that night, and were quite busy all day. As the crowds thinned out in the evening, we had the opportunity to work one-on-one with two different physicians – one a hand surgeon and the other, an oncologist specializing in Stomach and Pancreatic Cancer. I was excited to recommend Dr. Mitchell Gaynor’s book The Healing Power of Sound to the oncologist, and hope that the bowls find their way into his practice eventually.
Rain and I were able to share a ticket for the final session of His Holiness’ teachings. The morning Q & A session related to Emptiness, or the Buddhist principle of dependent origination. Buddhist philosophy holds that all phenomena are connected as an infinite process of cause and effect. The origin of all phenomena depends on sets of circumstances which created it, which, in turn, were created by other sets of circumstances, etc. So nothing exists independently of anything else, and therefore, is said to be devoid of intrinsic existence.
During this session, His Holiness spoke at length about Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, which refers to the middle ground between nihilism, school of Buddhist thought which rejected the objective reality of any phenomena, vs. our experience of daily life as an objective reality. For example, I always wondered why Buddhism rejected the existence of God. Until one morning, at the teachings in Pasadena, California, I went to a Starbucks determined to have two shots of espresso before the teachings so I would be able to stay awake. (His Holiness’s voice is resonant and melodic, and sometimes can put me into a deep sleep). When I got to the Starbucks, I knew I was on to something! The entire store was ablaze with red monk’s robes! Sure enough, that morning, His Holiness discussed God in the context of dependent origination, so then it made sense that what Buddhism rejected was the concept of God as Absolute Creator, apart from Creation itself. I was really happy I stayed awake for that point.
The final day was only a half day, so we spent the rest of that day breaking down and preparing to go up to the public talk at the Conseco Field House in Indianapolis. It’s fitting to close with a prayer for the long life of His Holiness, some form of which is always said at the teachings:
In the Land encircled by snow white mountains,
The source of all happiness and benefit.
Flows in your person, Chenresig, Tenzin Gyatso
Remain until Samsara ends.
Om Mani Padme Hum!